Heading East: Artists in flux

One art collective joins a wave of San Franciscans who are moving to the East Bay

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Part of the Flux Foundation crew in its American Steel workspace.
PHOT BY CATIE MAGEE

San Francisco isn't an easy place to live for artists and others who choose to fill their souls at the expense of their bank accounts, particularly with the comparatively cheap and sunny East Bay so close. And with more of these creative types being lured eastward, Oakland and its surroundings are getting ever more hip and attractive — just as San Francisco is being gentrified by dot-com workaholics.

It's a trend I've been noticing in recent years, one that I saw embodied during regular trips to make Burning Man art with the Flux Foundation (see "Burners in Flux," 8/31/10) and hundreds of others who work out of the massive American Steel warehouse.

At least once a week, I would take BART to the West Oakland station and cycle up Mandela Parkway, a beautiful and inviting boulevard, riding in the wide bike lane past evocative public art projects in weather that was always warmer than my neighborhood in San Francisco.

Since then, I've watched waves of my Flux friends moving from San Francisco to the East Bay, pushed by the high cost of living and pulled by the allure of a better and more sustainable lifestyle, a migration of some of the most interesting and creative people I know, some of the very people that have made San Francisco so cool.

"I love San Francisco, but it's just not an affordable place anymore," said Jessica Hobbs, one of the Flux founders who last year moved with two other women from the crew into what they call the Flux Meow House in a neighborhood near the intersection of Oakland, Berkeley, and Emeryville.

Hobbs has long worked in the East Bay and "I've never been one of those who has that bridge-phobia" — that resistance to cross over into other cities for social gatherings — "but the most interesting culture of San Francisco is starting to move to the East Bay."

In the last 10 years, workspaces for burners and other creative types have proliferated in the East Bay — including the Shipyard, the Crucible, NIMBY Warehouse, Xian, Warehouse 416, and American Steel — while the number in San Francisco has stayed static or even shrunk. That's partly a result of SF's dwindling number of light industrial spaces, but Hobbs said the influx of artists in the East Bay supported and populated these new workspaces and fed the trend.

"They were making space for that to happen, so we came over here," Hobbs said. "There's more willingness to experiment over here."

There have been code-compliance conflicts between these boundary-pushing art spaces and civic officials, including Berkeley's threats to shut down the Shipyard and Oakland's issues with NIMBY, but Hobbs said both were resolved in ways that legitimized the spaces. And then events such as Art Murmur, a monthly art walk in downtown Oakland, put these artists and their creations on proud display.

"Oakland and the East Bay have been very welcoming," Hobbs said. "They want us."

As we all talked on April 5, Karen Cusolito was throwing a party celebrating the third anniversary of American Steel, a massive workspace she formed for hundreds of artists and a gathering space for her extended community. Cusolito had working in the East Bay since 2005, commuting from Hunters Point before finally moving to Oakland in 2010.

"I moved here with such great trepidation because I thought I'd be bored," she said. "But I've found a more vibrant community than I could have imagined, along with an unexpected sense of calm."

Reflecting on the third anniversary of American Steel, Cusolito said, "On one hand, I'm astonished that it's been three years. On the other hand, I'm surprised that this hasn't always existed," she said. "I have an amazing community here. I'm very blessed."